Our Berlin bike tour guide, George Wanjala (above), a Kenyan with a degree from Cornell, did not mince any words when he showed me and a pal around remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, on a 10-mile tour of a city once divided.
“We’d be dead if we were caught here before 1989,” said Wanjala, as we stood in Mauer Park (Wall Park), where today graffiti artists are free to paint a remaining strip of wall and karaoke contests are held nearby in what was once a “death strip.”
How times have changed.
Back in 1961, the leaders of East Germany probably didn’t imagine that the foreboding, heavily guarded wall they were putting up—to keep East Germans from fleeing—would someday be a big tourist attraction.
But today, remaining portions of the concrete barrier, and really the whole culture of the GDR (German Democratic Republic), are very much part of the tourist scene in Berlin—at times poignant, at times kitschy.
In Berlin, you can learn about the popularity of nude sunbathing in the GDR, see a display of GDR motorcycles; do a self-drive tour in a smelly old East German Trabi car (above); grab a beer at Mauerblumchen bar (Wisbyer Str. 4), with Iron Curtain décor; or cry, as we did, at the Berlin Wall Memorial, over stories of people trying desperately to escape from East to West (hundreds died in the process).
A peaceful revolution led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and in the euphoria that followed much of the wall was dismantled (and shipped off to museums and other places all over the world). But Berlin is where you really learn about this chapter in world history.
Today is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Guest blogger and frequent contributor Fran Golden visited Berlin in September.